We all want our kids to be happy. Why else would we move heaven and earth at 11 p.m. Christmas Eve to find their No. 1 wish after realizing that the eBay seller sent the wrong item? (OK, maybe that was just me … I’ll admit, I’m still a little traumatized!)

But what will make them experience the kind of happiness that runs deeper than a new gadget or birthday party high? The kind of high that comes from feeling that their lives matter and have a purpose?

About a year and a half ago, I gave birth to my son, Aaron, prematurely. Although he gave it his best fight, he only lived eight and a half days. Going through the raw emotions and unpredictable phases of grief forced me to think about this universal human pursuit of happiness in new ways, and I now find myself approaching the parenting of my 6-year-old daughter differently, too.

A month after Aaron died, I came up with the idea to develop a grant program called Aaron’s Presents that would give young children (eighth grade and below) an opportunity to dream up and carry out a positive project that benefits others. There was nothing like it that I could find that puts resources directly into the hands of kids this young. The thought of kind, creative acts done by other children because of Aaron’s short but meaningful life felt right, and the joy and healing that I found working with our first grant recipients exceeded all of my expectations.

If I could sum up the most important insight I’ve gained and experienced firsthand this past year, it’s this: Finding ways to give of ourselves for the benefit of others, at every age and stage of our lives, brings happiness, healing and purpose. By “giving of ourselves,” I mean taking all of the different things that make us who we are – our personalities, interests, skills, life experiences and challenges – and asking ourselves, “Because of who I am right now, how can I impact others around me in a positive way?”

Our kids are working and playing harder than ever these days and striving to achieve in every area of their lives. They want to know, “What will I get?” after each game won, skill acquired, grade completed, college acceptance received and so on. But if the ultimate result of all of their efforts is simply accumulating accolades, virtual “likes” and material “stuff,” it will only be a matter of time before they ask, “What’s the point?” My response is to encourage them to make a one-word change – to ask themselves, “Now that I can write, read, dance, build a website, make jewelry or play baseball, what will I give?”

This simple shift in outlook can infuse everything they do and work toward with real meaning. If they are making someone’s life better in some way, no matter how small, they will never have to wonder if their lives matter. They will know without a doubt that the world is better because they are in it.

This past year, our first 29 young grant recipients (ages 8-14) completed 14 projects, giving “presents” to more than 2,400 people. These projects included assembling Halloween costume packages for 21 children living in transitional housing and organizing games and activities for elderly residents at a nursing home in Lowell. If you have a child who might be interested in applying for an Aaron’s Presents grant of up to $500 in materials and services, please visit aaronspresents.org for more information.

Leah Okimoto, the founder and executive director of Aaron’s Presents, lives in Andover with her husband and daughter. She may be contacted at [email protected].

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